San Juan, Puerto Rico - U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agents, working jointly with Puerto Rico Crimes Against Children Task Force (PRCACTF) officers, arrested Tuesday and Wednesday 12 people for crimes involving the sexual exploitation of children. The operation, dubbed Friend Zone, is the largest enforcement operation ever held in Puerto Rico targeting predators who possess, produce or distribute sexually explicit images of minors.

As part of Operation Friend Zone, HSI special agents surreptitiously infiltrated peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing networks to identify users in Puerto Rico who sought to acquire or distribute known or suspected images and videos of children engaged in sexually explicit activities. Throughout the course of the operation, investigators identified Internet Protocol addresses actively involved in trading child pornography registered to users in Aguadilla, Ponce, Fajardo, Ceiba, Arecibo, Florida, Vega Baja, Toa Baja, Bayamon, Toa Alta, San Juan, Guaynabo and Carolina. In addition to the 12 arrests, investigators seized nearly 1,000 computing devices during the execution of 20 search warrants, including desktop and laptop computers, tablets, smartphones and thumb drives containing hundreds of terabytes of data that includes thousands of sexually explicit images and videos of children. Some of the defendants arrested possessed libraries of sexually explicit images and videos of children numbering in the hundreds.

“Trying to hide your presence on the Internet by using P2P networks will not prevent HSI from uncovering your criminal acts as these suspects can very well attest,” said Angel M. Melendez, special agent in charge of HSI San Juan. “HSI has the tools and our special agents have the expertise to identify and arrest predators despite their efforts to hide in the cyberspace. Crimes involving the exploitation of children are particularly disturbing because they victimize the most vulnerable members of our society. This includes the possession and distribution of images of child pornography. Such images are not merely photos or videos; they are evidence of the physical and psychological abuse of children.”

Several of the defendants held positions of public trust, including a former police officer, a federal employee, a high school teacher and a medical technician at a local hospital in the San Juan metropolitan area.

As of April 9, HSI San Juan special agents have arrested 37 individuals on child exploitation charges. With seven months left in the fiscal year, the number of arrests surpasses those netted during Fiscal Year 2014, during which HSI San Juan arrested 36 individuals on child exploitation charges.

In response to the need for an island-wide approach in the fight against the escalation of predatory crimes against children, HSI San Juan partnered with members of local, state and federal law enforcement, as well as local and state government officials and community leaders, to form the PRCACTF in June 2011.

Through PRCACTF, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies work together with local and state government agencies to effectively pool their resources to jointly investigate all crimes against children in Puerto Rico. Through the task force, law enforcement officers are encouraged to share evidence, ideas, and investigative and forensic tools to ensure the most successful prosecutions possible. As such, PRCACTF allows law enforcement to speak with one unified voice in defense of the children of Puerto Rico.

This investigation was conducted under HSI’s Operation Predator, an international initiative to protect children from sexual predators. Since the launch of Operation Predator in 2003, HSI has arrested more than 10,000 individuals for crimes against children, including the production and distribution of online child pornography, traveling overseas for sex with minors, and sex trafficking of children. In fiscal year 2014, more than 2,300 individuals were arrested by HSI special agents under this initiative and more than 1000 victims identified or rescued.

HSI encourages the public to report suspected child predators and any suspicious activity through its toll-free Tip Line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or by completing its online tip form. Both are staffed around the clock by investigators. From outside the U.S. and Canada, callers should dial 802-872-6199. Hearing impaired users can call TTY 802-872-6196.Suspected child sexual exploitation or missing children may be reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, an Operation Predator partner, via its toll-free 24-hour hotline, 1-800-THE-LOST.

For additional information about wanted suspected child predators, download HSI’s Operation Predator smartphone app or visit the online suspect alerts page.

HSI is a founding member and current chair of the Virtual Global Taskforce, an international alliance of law enforcement agencies and private industry sector partners working together to prevent and deter online child sexual abuse.